The Obama-Karzai Summit: A Whole Lotta Nuthin'

05/13/2010 02:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Well, that was a bust. The much-heralded four-day visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the United States was supposed to be an opportunity for the Obama administration to take a new approach to dealing with the fickle Afghan leader.

The plan, we were told, was to praise Karzai in public, while privately engaging him in a frank discussion on corruption and the need to strengthen local Afghan governors.

The result would benefit both sides: Karzai would recover legitimacy after his "re-election" last year, and Obama would win real progress on issues important to facilitating an American withdrawal.

But far from a new beginning, all this week's Obama-Karzai summit delivered was more of the same: renewed American commitments repaid with empty rhetoric from the Afghan president.

For example, Karzai won Obama's support for his $160 million Taliban reconciliation plan, which promises to deliver jobs and skills training to ex-militants, and offers amnesty and exile to senior insurgent leaders. The plan looks good on paper, but one wonders whether Kabul will be capable of implementing it.

Karzai won his big-ticket item, but the U.S. president got nowhere on his: curbing the Karzai regime's rampant corruption. The Afghan president blew him off, telling the press it would be "another few years" before there was any discernible progress on that front.

Obama reportedly also wanted Karzai to fast-track aid for Afghan district governors. In March, Kabul approved a mechanism for allocating funds to governors, but according to American officials it will take up to two years for Afghanistan's bureaucracy to implement the program. Meanwhile, governors are left without funds for development projects, or even staff.

The Afghan president didn't get everything he wanted--his push for Washington to dub Afghanistan a "Major Non-NATO Ally," which would have placed Afghanistan on a par with Japan, Israel, and Pakistan, and entailed a bevy of new security commitments from Washington, was rejected in favor of a U.S.-Afghan "strategic dialogue."

Karzai won most of the items on his wishlist because both he and Obama know that, as far as Afghanistan goes, Hamid Karzai is the only game in town. Both Karzai's allies and detractors know that no matter how badly he bungles Afghanistan's government, Washington won't be able to replace him as president.

There's only one thing that could force Karzai to make concessions to Washington--a credible threat to withdraw American and NATO forces from the country. Western troops are the only people preventing the complete dissolution of the Afghan state and Karzai's final descent into irrelevance. And Karzai, for all his musing about joining the Taliban, is fully aware of this, and will do anything to keep NATO in Afghanistan for as long as possible.

With approval ratings for the war plummeting fast, Obama could play this card sooner rather than later.